Have you been infected with MTD?

me-me-meThe songs we sing betray the theology we hold. In a church we recently visited, two lines from the choruses jumped out at my wife and me:

“I am a friend of God…He calls me friend.”

“He took the fall, and thought of me above all.”

There’s nothing wrong with experiential religion. As Wesleyans, we celebrate John Wesley’s “heartwarming” experience on Aldersgate Street in London 24 May 1738 when he received the assurance of his sins forgiven and reconciliation with God. God loves and cares for us and wants to enter into relationship with us. Still, I wonder: Does God exist for my sake, or do I exist for God’s?

Researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton set out in 2005 to understand the religious worldview of American teenagers. What they discovered was a truncated Christian understanding that they dubbed MTD – Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. MTD gives little thought to historic beliefs like resurrection, incarnation, sin, justification, or sanctification. Instead, what matters most is “being nice,” acting like a good, moral person – the “M.” Heaven exists and good people one day will get to go there. Further, God is someone to whom we can turn in times of trouble, but most days God doesn’t enter our consciousness – the “T.” But if skyscrapers start falling as on September 11, 2001, we run to God to comfort us. Finally, God is like the remote deity of 18th century deism, the Creator who is far away, uninvolved in our lives on a daily basis – the “D.”

How did we get to the place where God is nothing more than our lucky charm, a grandfatherly, non-demanding life coach to help us succeed? Albert Mohler places much of the blame at the feet of grown-ups:

All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life.

Mohler doesn’t criticize evangelism plans, so I’ll do it for him. For years, the 4 Spiritual Laws was the default method for presenting the Gospel. That presentation begins with the affirmation that “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” Notice who is at the center of that message? It’s YOU! You’re the one that counts. You’re so important that the God of the universe’s reason for being is you and this supposed tailor-made plan. You are the sun, and God is merely Jupiter, the largest planet revolving around you.

I don’t buy it. The Bible lays out principles for living that don’t put us at the center, but God. There are general guidelines for living — “Love God, love your neighbor.” There are the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes. If we live those out, then we are accomplishing God’s will for our lives. It’s all about God, not about us. Find out where God is at work, and join God’s mission. You don’t need a special invitation. We already received one in Scripture.

But let’s go back to those choruses cited above. They fail because they place the individual at the center rather than God. I’m not interested in fighting the so-called “worship wars” all over again, but you have to admit that some of the old hymns got it right. They exalted the Divine, God’s glorious attributes, effacing us and praising the Lord:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise!
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.

Bring back the theological debates. Let’s discuss predestination, free grace, sovereignty, salvation and providence. At least these weighty topics are worthy of our time and point us away from ourselves and self-interest to the character of God and how we can bring God glory. The only antidote for those infected with MTD is to get our eyes off ourselves and our own petty interests, to put God back at the center where God belongs, in both our lives and our worship.

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Image credit: Technorati

Nazarene or “Baptarene”? When traditions collide

Phineas F. Bresee served for 38 years as a Methodist minister before beginning the fledgling “Church of the Nazarene” at the turn of the 20th century. Other non-Methodist groups fused with his in 1907 and 1908.

My dad grew up Nazarene, but my mom was raised independent Baptist. So, if ever there was a “Baptarene,” it was me. But I suspect I’m not the only former Baptarene who has rediscovered what being a Nazarene is, and now, I refuse to look back.

Don’t get me wrong. I harbor no animus against Baptists. I’ve always admired their fervor in evangelism, their giving for world missions and their emphasis upon the importance of Scripture. All three of those characterized John Wesley (1703-91) as well, the 18th century Anglican evangelist  who is the ecclesiastical ancestor of Nazarenes. But Wesley wasn’t a Baptist; he was an Anglican/Methodist, and I’ve come to treasure that heritage as something valuable and worth protecting.

Take the issue of women in ministry. From our official beginning in 1908, Nazarenes have formally acknowledged in our Manual that God calls both men and women to all roles of ordained ministry. Among other passages, we’ve always taken Acts 2:17-18 seriously, that in the “last days” God will pour out the Holy Spirit on everyone. The evidence of this outpouring will be (in part) that “servants” who are “both men and women” will “prophesy.” Prophecy is preaching, the telling forth of the message of salvation through Christ. This message is so important that you just can’t keep half of your team planted on the bench. Everyone – male and female – must get into the game.

Another legacy from our Methodist roots is infant baptism for the children of church-going parents, practiced alongside believer baptism for older converts. In the same message on Pentecost, Peter assured his Jewish listeners – the Covenant people of God – that God has done something new in Jesus Christ. After a scathing message where he accused them of having crucified Jesus, he ended with a word of hope: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). The promise of the Holy Spirit – as symbolized in baptism – was for all, regardless of age: “The promise is for you and your children, for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (v. 39, italics added). And so on that Day of Pentecost, whole families were baptized — dads, moms, and kids. That set a pattern that was repeated at key junctures in the book of Acts, where entire “households” (Gk. oikos) were baptized. It’s inconceivable that this did not include babes in arms. This was a New Covenant, and the sign of the New Covenant people of God was baptism.

A third heritage from our Methodist roots is the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) as a means of grace. John Wesley himself celebrated communion frequently, as a way to fortify his faith. Today in Methodist churches and a growing number of Nazarene congregations, Eucharist is the high moment of worship, following a meaty sermon. It is the culmination of the moments spent together as the adoring community of faith.

But what about the Church of the Nazarene?

Have we kept these strands of our heritage from Methodism, or have we been squeezed into a Baptist mold, becoming “Baptarenes”?

Continue reading “Nazarene or “Baptarene”? When traditions collide”

Three Wesleyan Reasons Why We Send Missionaries

“If you take missions out of the Bible, there is little left but the covers.” This statement from Nina Gunter captures a central theme in Scripture, the theme of the Church moving out into the world in response to the missio Dei, the “mission of God.”  Indeed, all that we do cross-culturally in the name of “missions” arises out of our understanding of God’s “mission.” God’s mission refers to God’s plan through Christ to save all of creation but especially the peoples of the world that are creation’s crowning achievement.

Because of the missio Dei, the Church moves out in missions. We do missions in a variety of ways, from preaching to teaching, compassionate ministry among the poor and oppressed and medical work with the sick and dying. But whatever form missions takes, we will not be able to sustain the work over the long-term if we lose sight of the reason why we send missionaries.

Theologians from various Christian traditions have emphasized different aspects of God’s mission. In this lesson, we will look at three biblical themes that apply to a Wesleyan view of mission: God as loving and holy, prevenient grace, and the need for humans to respond to God’s salvation offer. By looking at these themes, we will be reminded of the rationale for the sacrifices we make as a church. In times of discouragement and economic hardship, we will be encouraged to keep giving of our prayers, time and resources.

Continue reading “Three Wesleyan Reasons Why We Send Missionaries”

John Wesley said that? Maybe not…

John Wesley, 1703-91

A colleague sent me a fascinating article about quotations wrongly attributed to John Wesley as well as “facts” surrounding his life and ministry, so called facts that actually are either plainly false or else unverifiable. An example of such a pseudo-quotation is:

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can. in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.

Another example is the term “social holiness.” In Methodism today, the term has come to mean any social project engaged in by the people of God.  Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t use the term that way if we want. We need not follow John Wesley slavishly, but at very least we should explain what Wesley meant by the term, which Heitzenrater agrees is a reference to Christian community, and I would add, especially the class meeting and bands.

Read it all by clicking here.